Most Endangered

The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently issued its annual list of endangered places.  Number one on the list?  America’s State Parks & State-Owned Historic Sites.

The Trust explains:

“In response to record-breaking deficits, state governments are cutting funding for state-owned and -managed parks and historic sites from coast to coast. State park systems welcome an estimated 725 million visits every year and include places of national significance – from Native American historic sites to Revolutionary War forts to Civil War battlefields to country estates.

“This year nearly 30 states have experienced cuts to parks’ and sites’ budgets, and a recent survey estimates as many as 400 state parks could close. While providing some short-term budget relief, this approach will actually cost states far more in the long term. Before they can re-open, state-owned and -managed resources will require massive investments to undo the damage suffered from abandonment, neglect, and deferred maintenance.”

Rankinen Farm, Old World Wisconsin

(Rankinen, a Finnish farm, has been closed during my recent visits (no matter what the season.)

That hits right at home.  Old World Wisconsin is a state-owned historic site.  When I began working there in 1982, every historic home, service building, or farm was staffed, every day, no exceptions.  Most of the farms had two interpreters scheduled.  Hours were uniform:  10-5 on weekends and summer days; 9-4 on weekdays during the school-tour season.

Back in the early ‘80s, there was a lot of talk about how dire the site’s (and sites’) financial situation was.  Administrators told us that we were at low ebb; that things could only get better.

Tom Kroemer in the Peterson Wagon Shop, Old World Wisconsin

(The wagon shop has wonderful stories to tell but it, too, is often closed.)


Things didn’t get better.  Hours have been cut.  So have interpretive positions.  For a number of years, now, certain exhibits are often—or even always—unstaffed.

Don’t get me wrong.  You can still spend several happy days exploring the open exhibits on site, and talking with the dedicated interpreters who work so hard to bring their buildings to life.

But I miss the days when it was unthinkable that any building be closed.  Ever.

So…what can we all do?

Spend some time on the National Trust site.  Look at the entire list of endangered places.  Some will be familiar; some, likely, will not.

Get involved.  It only takes a few minutes to zip an email to an elected official.  Tell them why you believe historic sites deserve all the protection and resources that can be mustered.

Best of all?  Visit your local historic site.  If you can volunteer or get involved in some greater capacity, great.  But don’t underestimate the power of simply buying an admission ticket.  Most state historic sites have so much going on that you can visit several times in a single season, and always find new things to investigate and enjoy.  Take the kids, take your parents, take your friends. 

I hope that when Old World Murder is released this October, it might—in some tiny way—help raise awareness of, and interest in, the historic site.  But Old World Murder is a novel.  I’m in charge.  Things might look grim for a while, but all will be well in the end.

I wish I could with certainty say the same thing about the economic stability of Wisconsin’s, and the nation’s, historic sites.

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